Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The "Ownership Society"

This must be a Luntz meme, though of course George Bush is selling it. Luntz is the Republican Rasputin who decides how wingnut philosophy is sold. To interpret the contents of Luntz memes correctly you must always ask what the exact opposite meaning from the obvious one might be. Or something very close to that.

Take the idea of the "ownership society". It sounds like a society where everybody owns something, where everybody is prosperous and self-sufficient. It sounds like a very good thing.

In reality, an "ownership society" for the wingnuts means something quite different: the very rich will get to keep everything they have, whereas most other people will get to keep very little.

How do I know this? By simply looking at what the wingnuts do rather than what they say. Recently, they are working very hard to get two things done: 1. To strip many of the protections bankruptcy law still gives to those who used to be middle class before life dealt them a bad card, and 2. To guarantee that the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the superrich never need to toil or weave by making the repeal of the estate tax permanent. Paris Hilton gives you an idea of the beneficiary group for this effort. In the background a third effort is ongoing, and that is the war against any kind of government funded social safety net. The destruction of Social Security is just one part of this longer crusade. And of course the wingnuts always try to make taxes more regressive so that the wealthy would pay less.

The "ownership society" seems to equal "the risk society" for most of us. We are asked to bear all risks inherent in life and in economic activities, without the entrepreneurial benefits that usually accompany risk-bearing. We are asked to dispense with the insurance aspects of the social safety net, to struggle alone against the hard kicks of life and the callous market forces. And should we fail, well, there won't be a second chance for most of us after the new bankruptcy law proposal passes. On the other hand, a new compromise proposal on the federal estate tax would mean no taxes on the first seven million dollars a married couple leaves to their heirs. Isn't that good to know?

What the "ownership society" does not mean is pretty much anything that would expand the choices and rights of the poor and the middle classes. Would workers own the right to their jobs? (Don't be silly!) Would Americans on the whole own the right to enjoy clean air and water and untouched areas of wilderness? (What are you, a commie?) Well, can we at least own our private information and records? (No. This is a sacrifice we all must make to fight terrorism.) And so on.

The meme of "ownership" will probably succeed. Most of Luntz's memes succeed. All he needed to do was to call estate taxes "death taxes" and right away most Americans felt really bad for the rich, because taxing the rich is unfair. Nobody asked how some of the rich got that way in the first place and whether it was in a fair way, or whether the poor were that way because of some perfectly fair societal judgment scheme, or whether it is just that some of us never need to work whereas others work nonstop and still fail to keep their heads above water. Even mentioning this is heresy. It smacks of communism in the wingnut frame, though all it really is is rational dialogue with a smidgen of charity thrown in.